Less controversy thanks to transparency

The agribusiness and food industry come regularly in the media with some bad publicity. As such, it does not differ from other industries, as criticism comes with the territory.

What is unfortunate is that the agribusiness mostly responds to this in a rather defensive manner, either by attempting to bring rational scientific facts or by denying the facts that their opponents bring forward.

Criticism of food and food quality is not new. When I started my professional life, I had been lent a book about how food in general, and animal husbandry in particular, are perceived. The introduction of this book was a long complaint about the quality of bread, and by then (in the mid 80’s) the arguments presented sounded quite familiar to me. The funny part of it was that in fact this text was, according to the author, a report written in Ancient Egypt, some 3,000 years ago.

Although bad publicity and criticism are obviously no novelty when it comes to food, it seems that the industry has a hard time fighting this battle.

Some pressure is goodAs such, criticism is not a bad thing as long as it is not done in bad faith with the only purpose to bring damage. There is nothing wrong with consumers being concerned about the quality of the food they eat, and about the way it is produced. Being worried about whether and how antibiotics or hormones are used, about the potential problems to the environment linked to intensive production is quite legitimate when you are rather ignorant of production techniques. After all, nobody has ever claimed that any industry was perfect, and business is always work in progress. It is utmost important for all of us to have watchdogs in order to make sure that we do not get into excesses that can lead to irreparable damage.

Let’s also realize that only a tiny minority of people now work in agriculture and that most city residents have a very limited, if any, knowledge of how farms are operated. On the other hand, they have very strong, often idealistic and romantic, opinions on how they think farming should be, regardless of whether it is viable or if it can provide them enough food. Surveys with city kids have shown that many of them do not make any connection between eggs and hens, or between milk and cows and calves. For many, it is not even a clear fact that in order to get meat, one has to kill an animal.

Further, it is human nature to pick on the big guy, as we all love the story of David defeating Goliath. Moreover, bad news, the more sensational the better, always get more attention than good news, like the recent article published in Time. There is nothing like fear to get people glued to their TVs or reading reports in the papers or on internet. These psychological traits are quite difficult to deal with.

The problem with defensiveness, when dealing with bad publicity, is that it always brings the defendant in an awkward position. If this not handled properly, it can very easily come over as suspicious, which reinforces the poor impression.

Transparency creates trustIn my opinion, the only proper way forward about information on agriculture and food is transparency. Only transparency can eliminate (or at least reduce to a minimum) negative publicity. Only by being candid and open about the way food is produced, can the agricultural community inform properly the public.

Remember that issues around food production are highly emotional, as they deal with much more than just nutrition. This is why responding with rational arguments has so little effectiveness. First, emotional concerns must be dealt with as emotions, not merely with cold scientific facts. Only once the emotional connection has been established, it is possible to bring the communication to more rational aspects and facts.

The better informed the public is, the easier it is to also discuss and address issues that come along the way. Candour is only the first step, the clearly expressed will to always improve the way food is produced is absolutely necessary, and this is not about vague promises. It must come with an open agenda of issues that the industry knows about and is (and will be) addressing without complacency. A clear commitment to a plan of actions with defined time lines is the best way to create and restore trust with consumers. And the best way to score in this is by taking the initiative and the lead. The industry and this includes any participant in the production chain and its watchdogs, from breeding to retail, needs to make these decisions, instead of having to react to changes in legislation, which very often is the result of pressure from the public opinion.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

High-tech fish farm

Hawaii Oceanic Technology IncHere is an article from fis.com about another type of high tech fish farm with some nice futuristic design.

Hawaii Oceanic Technology Inc. has created the Oceansphere. “These elegant, self-sustaining and untethered semi-submerged floating pods are a revolution in open ocean aquaculture technology”, according to the fis.com article. The system is operated without the use of fossil fuels, which makes it environmentally quite acceptable.

As mentioned in the article, the company’s “plan is to demonstrate the feasibility of this technology and, as Jacques Cousteau said, farm the ocean as we farm the land.”

Corn seen staying below $4 through 2014

Update on April 11 2011: Obviously forecasting is a difficult task!

For May 2011, Corn  is at $7.60/bu and Soybean at $ 13.84/bu

(Original article was of August 2009)

Here is a report about a research of the University of Missouri on some agricultural prices through 2014.

Prices are not seen increasing much, which tends to confirm an earlier report of the FAO.

Corn: $ 3.47/bushel in 2009/2010 to $3.98 in 2014/2015
Soybean: $9.44/bushel in 2009/2010 to $9.74 in 2014/2015
Nebraska direct steers (1,100-1,300 lbs.): $85.07 in 2009 to $100.05 in 2014
Twelve city wholesale broiler price: $.80/lb. in 2009 to $0.91 in 2014

USDA experiments with grain harvesting device

Here is a nice illustration of what I meant with my article “Innovation and tradition shape the future“.

New harvest method for same yields and better soil and moisture preservationThis is an article from WorldGrain.com describing the result of a test on a new harvesting system for grain carried out by the USDA. They tested the stripper header on millet and wheat.
The idea of this system is to strip away the grain and leave as long as possible a stubble, so that it protects the soil from erosion and enhances precipitation storage. So far results tend to indicate that yields are not affected by this harvesting method.
Just an example of using new technology and innovation to help improve a rather traditional method of getting organic matter in the soil.

Wal-Mart’s 15 questions to suppliers on sustainability

Recently, Wal-Mart has sent a questionnaire to all their suppliers, including for food items, asking them to give answers to 15 questions about they actually do about sustainability.

I like this questionnaire, because it is simple, practical and straight to the point. Suppliers who have difficulties to figure out the answers definitely have quite some catching up to do, because this is not going away.

This is the first step to impose a change towards sustainable products, and we can expect that this document, although only the beginning, will soon become the standard for retailers, and therefore to industry. I believe that their approach will be much more effective than all the partisan talk that seems to create more division than help create a comprehensive plan for the general interest.

I recommend reading this article from GreenBiz, which explains quite well what the Wal-Mart questionnaire will concretely mean for suppliers.

Ecosystem-based management approach gains importance

Here is an article from fis.com illustrating what I had written in previous articles in this blog (enter “ecosystem” in the search window to have the list of these articles) and mentioned in my presentation Twelve trends for the future of food production.
It also illustrate my claim that for environmental organizations and industry need time has come to co-operate.
After all, food production is a biological process and so are our lives, so that is no wonder that we need to look at this issue in its broad and complete scope.

Retailers take the lead in sustainability

Sustainability is a bit like quality: everyone talks about it but few give a clear definition when it comes to practical and concrete specifications. Just as importantly, leadership is badly needed to transform the talking into effective action.

The future is in our handsAs long as the lawmakers remain slow to bring up the change and the clarity to give clear directions, we will need the leadership of some of the most influential players in consumer markets to get things moving.

Even environmental organizations and sustainability bodies have some difficulties to agree with each other. For example Greenpeace does not seem to think that the guidelines from the Marine Stewardship Council offer solid enough guarantees that products brought to market according to these guidelines truly are sustainable. Clearly, this is an area in continuous evolution and the ideal concept is still in the making.

The consumer themselves are both still under informed as well as overwhelmed by all sorts of contradictory messages to know clearly which choices to make, therefore some decide of what to buy either based on philosophical or on financial reasons.

Similarly, many businesses are trying to find their green way as they can, but there again the lack of a strong regulatory frame and the uncertainty of the return on the green investment do not help them. The result is that, although the awareness about sustainability among businesses has grown substantially over the last few years, many companies have taken rather timid steps so far, limiting their actions to the least costly possible and the most PR and marketing-driven. They claim to go green, they communicate a lot about it, but the progress is slow.

Yet, some companies take more initiative, show leadership and push to make the whole supply chain evolve to sustainable production systems. A very active sector in this area is the retail. Retailers in the UK such as Tesco or Waitrose, in Canada with Loblaw’s and Overwaitea Food Group, and of course especially Wal-Mart in the USA have definitely made their choice. They clearly understand that the future cannot be anything but sustainable and they are demanding that their suppliers now come with products that meet the requirements of tomorrow. Last month Wal-Mart demanded from all their suppliers to “develop comprehensive programs to promote sustainability and transparency – or else contemplate a future without Wal-Mart as a customer” (read article).

Tesco is now indicating the carbon footprint of milk products on the labels (see article “Environmental performance on food labels”); Waitrose, Loblaw’s and Overwaitea are going for sustainable fish products, adopting for example the SeaChoice specifications as their guideline. Wal-Mart stores have already implemented a number of measures to reduce their carbon footprint by reducing the energy consumption, and they have already have made some of their suppliers introduce different product presentation. For example, they were the first to demand laundry detergent to be more concentrated and packed in smaller containers. This saved water, it saved energy used to transport useless water, and it saved plastic used for the jugs and for the pallets on which the product was transported. Today, concentrated laundry detergent in smaller jugs is the standard. Without Wal-Mart pushing for the change, we probably still would use the old product in the old packaging.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Ownership of food: the seeds of future conflicts

From an agriculture that mostly was producing locally for a local market with a straight forward production chain, the organization of food production has become more complex and structured over time. As we moved towards always more integration, traceability and globalized markets, the roles and bargaining positions of the different actors has changed.

bargaining power evolves

Facing the possibilities of more food riots in the future, if we are not in a position to make food affordable for all, we certainly can expect to see new power struggles emerge.

If we place ourselves in a scenario of food shortage, it is normal to assume that the power would be in the hands of whoever owns the food. But who is the owner, or better said who is actually in charge?

Is it the retailer? Is it the farmer? Is it the owner of the land on which the crops are grown? Is it the futures contract trader? Is it the seed supplier? Because without farmers, there is not much food in the stores; and without seeds, farmers cannot grow much food, and without food, no futures contracts to negotiate.

In the same way, who should decide where to the food would go? Does it belong to the country and the people who produce it, or does it belong to a corporation that prefers to sell it abroad? In a situation of shortage, this could lead to serious conflicts.
Corporations look primarily at markets and try to maximize their profit. That is their mandate.
Governments have a different look at things, as politicians want to have happy citizens, so that their position of power can continue. All they want is avoid social unrest.
Potentially, this can lead to new regulations and even to the possibility of nationalizations if companies and governments do not agree.

To get back to the example of seeds and genetics, there is a growing responsibility resting of the shoulders of breeding and genetic engineering companies. Not so long ago, let’s say a bit more than a century, there was much more genetic diversity in agricultural crops and farm animals. This diversity has shrunk quite significantly and we face the potential risk of not having the right genes available if we were to face a natural situation that would eradicate plants or animals as a result of inability to resist and to adapt to the new conditions these organisms must deal with. The genetic pool used to be a collective asset, but it has moved more and more into a private asset. About this, too, one can wonder who is in charge and who has ownership, and what could the consequences be.

As long as we are not facing any severe supply unbalance, the current situation will probably linger as it is a bit further, with the players having the most power trying to grow their position and influence other deciders to their advantage, but this kind of consensual vagueness about who is the owner of food will sooner or later cause some major shake-up.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The fish farming of the future?

Here is an article of the National Geographic about “Giant Robotic Cages to Roam Seas as Future Fish Farms?”

This article addresses a number of very interesting and valid points, such as the possibility to move to better farming environment, or getting farms closer to consumer markets.

Photograph Ocean Farm Technologies Having the ability to change location has several advantages. It allows finding areas where water quality is better as this varies with seasons and climate conditions. It also can allow farms to move away from the routes of wild fish and substantially reduce risks of disease and parasite contamination and spreading. Being closer to consumers market also has the advantage of reducing the amount of transportation and have the fish brought to market faster, therefore fresher, theoretically.

However, this article does not address a number of important aspects of fish farming. Going far offshore brings some organizational issues, such as rotating the crews working on farms, or dealing with rough weather. Probably some fine tuning would be needed to organize feed deliveries to such farms as well and the mobility must not happen at the expense of the life of equipment or the functioning of cameras and computers used for management purposes. As such, nothing that cannot be resolved, but it would come at a cost as well. Then it is to the farmers to weigh the pros and cons and make their decision.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting idea that shows that this industry is in full evolution and is adapting to the future.

Pioneering the oceans and robotizing aquaculture connects quite well with my previous articles “Innovation and tradition shape the future” and “The ocean, not Mars, is the next frontier

Environmental performance on food labels

Here is an article about British supermarket chain Tesco starting a project on labelling the carbon footprint of milk products.

carbon footprint of your food at a glance!This is quite an interesting development, as it would allow consumers to make their purchase decision based on the environmental impact of what they buy. It also would make retailers and producers more aware of their own business decision, be it for sourcing products or choosing their markets.

Of course, an other very important next step will have to be consumer education about carbon footprint numbers and how to read them, but this learning process was also necessary with nutritional information.

I see this as a very good initiative to identify and segregate sensible products from the not so sensible ones. Very likely, we will see more labelling about environmental information in the future, and not just for food products, but all consumer products.